Everyone thought Sandy Hequin was crazy when she decided in the late 1990s to relocate and more than quadruple the size of Morays Jewelers in downtown Miami.
Hequin had seriously considered moving to Aventura or Coral Gables, neighborhoods that seem like a more obvious fit for a luxury jeweler where an average sale can run several thousand dollars and specialty items will top $1 million.
But Hequin feared that if she moved north or south she could end up losing half her clientele because they wouldn't want to make the drive. Plus, Flagler Street and downtown Miami have always been a part of Hequin's life and Morays' history. Hequin's grandfather opened the store in downtown Miami in 1944, and she started working there at age 5, sweeping floors, dusting showcases and arranging window displays.
"We decided to take a leap of faith, " said Hequin, about her decision to expand and move to the ground floor of the Alfred I. Dupont building her father owns. "Somebody had to be the first. One day everyone will catch up to me."
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That day hasn't come yet, but Hequin's investment in her business has paid off as sales have grown by double digits annually and business has more than tripled since the move. Hequin is in the progress of completing yet another expansion, taking some of the space vacated when La Epoca relocated.
"I'm taking advantage of being able to expand while the space is available, " said Hequin, the sixth generation of her family to run Morays, and her children are already planning for the day they will take over. "If I waited until downtown was ready, there won't be any place for me to go, and I'll be stuck again."
Hequin inherited her love of downtown from her dad, Richard Schechter, whom she jokingly calls "The Mayor" because he has been working downtown for 50 years. Schechter remembers the good old days of Downtown Miami in the 1960s, when ladies would come to Burdines in their hats and gloves for tea, and diners would stand in line outside the Town Restaurant waiting for tables. He only hopes he'll be around to see that popularity return, he said.
"I like being downtown; it's ethnic, it's not plain-vanilla people, " said Schechter, who ran the store from 1958 to 1994 and now manages the Dupont building. "I have faith in downtown. Without a center, a city has no soul."
While Morays attracts some of its customers from among the more than 100,000 people who work downtown, it doesn't rely on walk-in traffic. Its customers come from throughout South Florida, and others just have merchandise shipped to them directly. While tourists once were about a quarter of the business, now they might be 2 percent.
"We're a destination, " Schechter said. "When you're going to spend $10,000 or $20,000 on an item, you want to buy from someone you know."
Morays customers include a who's who of top athletes, coaches, celebrities, corporate executives and international political figures. Wealthy customers will often fly in on private planes to go shopping and have Hequin sign confidentiality agreements promising not to tell anyone what they have bought.
Sometimes Hequin and her father will comb the world looking for special items for their customers, like the 5-karat blue diamond they sold last year for $2.7 million.
But right now most of Morays customers pull into their building, valet park their cars and then leave without setting foot anywhere else downtown.
"I would like to see encouragement for other people to make an investment downtown, " Hequin said. "We're going to get really crappy retailers if all the good ones are afraid to come downtown. There are people who have money downtown and will come out and spend it. They need somewhere to go."